How not to run a business (Part 8): Stock and Incentive edition
While it’s great that employers want to reward employees and give incentives to stay, there is the correct way and there is the wrong way. Let’s explore.
Don’t offer tiny stock grants with huge vesting schedules and cliffs
If you’re planning to offer a stock grants as ‘stay’ incentives, make it sizable. Stock programs with vesting schedules are a good thing, but not grants with tiny amounts of shares. First, it’s a waste of paperwork to give out less than $10k in equivalent shares (vested over 4 years) in company stock both for the HR team and for the receiving employee. You’ll have your team spending time on managing all of these tiny grants with no benefit to anyone. Second, most employees won’t hesitate to walk away from such grants before the vesting period ends which means even more paperwork to clean it up after the employee has left. Employees won’t wait 12 months just to get another $1-2k when they can likely pick up a 5-10% raise (and possibly even a sign-on bonus) by changing jobs.
If you want to give an incentive to employees so that they stay with your company, approve grant sizes that matter. More specifically, grant sizes that are higher than an equivalent raise. Make it worth your employee to want to worry about. For example, grant a size equivalent to 1 year of salary (at the then current stock price) with a 4 year vesting schedule. If an employee sees they’re going to get 1/4 of their salary each year for the next 4 years, that’s definitely an incentive to stay. If they don’t stay, you don’t pay. Assuming the employee is a high performer and highly valued, it is worth it when they do stay. That’s the entire point of the grant. However, issuing a grant that, at best, offers the employee $1-3k after taxes each year offers not even the best performer an incentive to stay. After all, you do want this employee to stay, right? Most great employees can easily make up such a tiny amount left behind by moving to a new job with a new company. Most people would have no problems walking away from a tiny dollar amount for a new job offer. Again, this leaves your existing employees to clean up the mess left over from the tiny little unvested grants. Note that it’s the same amount of paperwork whether you grant 1 share or thousands.
In other words, grant stock incentive sizes that make sense for all involved or choose a different incentive vehicle altogether. While you may think giving stock grants is a positive thing, employees generally don’t because of the downsides of vesting schedules and cliffs, the hassles of taxes (it will probably cost the employee more to hire a tax consultant than the bonus is worth) and when it’s too small it’s not worth the employee’s time. Be very careful when using this incentive vehicle.
Don’t send the wrong message to your employees by using the wrong incentives
In the case above with stock, you have to consider what such a small grant size says to the employee. If you give an employee a pittance grant, you’ve essentially just told them, “You’re worth $1-2k a year extra” (once they do the math). That, in many cases (especially in California), is less than the average raise. That doesn’t, in any way, impart confidence that the employee is valued… and that’s exactly what a pittance grant says. It’s definitely not the right message to send. Yes, extra money is always a good thing, but not when it’s wrapped (er.. trapped) in the wrong incentive vehicle or if it’s the wrong dollar amount.
Keep in mind that for the employee it’s all about when they actually see the money. Trapping the money behind vesting schedules and vesting cliffs is tantamount to dangling a carrot from a stick just out of reach (for a year) and then only giving them 1/4 of that carrot after chasing it for a year. If you expect the employee to wait a year to get 1/4 of a baby carrot, it better be a damned good tasting baby carrot (e.g., a substantial amount of money actually worth waiting for).
From a monetary perspective alone, $1-2k extra a year can be easily handed to the employee in many other ways. You can label the extra as a bonus, you can label it as a ‘great job’ thank you, you can hand them a live check with a personal thank you or you can buy them an iPad as a gift.
Each of these suggested alternative incentives sends the correct message. Handing someone an iPad is a whole lot more satisfying of a bonus than handing them the quagmire of pittance RSUs. In stock plans with long term vesting schedules, vesting cliffs, stock price uncertainties, waiting periods and tax disincentives, it’s a quagmire of a bonus system for the employee to navigate only to secure $1k. Don’t use stock grants to hand out $1-2k a year bonuses. Using this incentive vehicle sends the absolute wrong message to your employees, can damage employee self-worth and ultimately damage your reputation as a respectable company. Ultimately, if the employee is left with nothing for a year and then has to wait 4 years to ultimately get maybe $10k gross and suffer huge tax liabilities in the process, that’s the wrong message to send.
So, always use the correct incentive vehicles to send a positive message to your employees to keep them on board. Using the wrong vehicle in the wrong way not only plants the seed of dissatisfaction, it can lead to the employee walking away entirely.
Don’t flaunt your sales team’s wins to your non-sales employees
Your sales team is important to the success of your company. It’s also great that your sales team members, or at least some of them, are doing well to bring in those great deals. On the other hand, many companies make the mistake of continually rewarding the most outstanding sales team members with trips, gifts, dinners and other niceties. Keep this information firmly within your sales team. Do not share this information with non-sales departments.
It’s very easy for the other departments to see the sales team as being the team with all the special benefits. This can make the other teams seem as if they are being left out of the loop. Your operations team, for example, usually has staff working 24/7/365 to make sure things are working. Yet, your sales team is being flown around the globe on sales team kick-offs. This sends the wrong message to other teams. If you are going to give incentives to your sales teams, either keep it away from your other teams or figure out a way (i.e., via winning an internal lottery) to include other team members in these wins.
Again, it’s important to understand that the sales team, while important to new business and renewals, isn’t the only team keeping your business afloat. All teams need to be supported, given incentives and given the opportunity to participate in travel events when available.
Do allow employees to participate in company sponsored events
If your company is planning to do trade shows such as Dreamforce or possibly even creation of your own company annual event, allow and encourage employees from all departments to participate. Doing the same job day after day, month after month is hard to do year in and out. Breaking the monotony of the same ole same ole will help reinvigorate employees when they do get back to their job. Allowing employees to do something different for a couple of days does help re-energize people to do their best jobs. It also encourages employees to meet and work with other employees outside of their team that they otherwise would not. This allows for a much closer knit company, especially when the employee does end up working with that person they met earlier.
Don’t be ambiguous or vague about your incentive programs and make sure they are fair to all teams
If you plan to offer such incentives as RSUs, stock options, bonus plans, merit-based trips, etc, document them. Document exactly how they work, who is eligible and how each employee can become eligible. If your programs only include certain departments, make certain that when other departments become aware (and they will) that you offer compensating alternatives to those other departments.
For example, if your sales team members receive an end-of-year trip to the Bahamas for the best sales numbers, then your finance team should, likewise, be offered some kind of off-site vehicle for the finance team members who consecutively kept their DSOs down that year. Offering something to one team and not others clearly smacks of favoritism. When it is not documented clearly, this causes more friction between teams than it solves. Better, if teams are offered grand incentives, then use a lottery to allow other departments to participate in it. So, for each sales team member who wins a trip, they can bring a member from another team along and that person is determined via a lottery. Again, this should all be documented fully so there is no question about either individual or team incentive programs.